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Nanya (1835–1895)

by Robert Lindsay

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Nanya (c.1835-1895), founder of one of the last New South Wales Aboriginal families to live by traditional hunting techniques, was a Maraura of the lower Darling. His childhood coincided with incursions in 1839-46 of European explorers, aggressive overlanders and punitive expeditions which killed most of his people, notably in the 1841 Rufus River massacre by South Australian police led by sub-inspector Bernard Shaw, South Australia's protector of Aborigines, Matthew Moorhouse was nominally in charge but was unable to prevent the killings of, by his own account, about thirty people, with many more wounded.

About 1860 Nanya left his camp at Popiltah station, forty miles (64 km) north of Pooncarie. With two women and a steel axe, he went into the waterless mallee country between the Great Anabranch and the South Australian border, known as the 'Scotia blocks', where he lived for over thirty years. Records compiled in 1897-1908 by amateur ethnographers suggest causes for Nanya's self-imposed exile; possibly he had eloped with a woman of his own Makwarra moiety, an offence considered incestuous and meriting death.

Nanya's people kept themselves closely concealed: there were some reports of tracks and piles of freshly cut mallee roots, but very few sightings, although Aboriginal stockmen were well aware of their movements. By the early 1890s the press reported more frequent sightings of the 'wild tribe'. Station-workers found that Nanya's people were obtaining water by operating tank machinery on Cuthero station, and noticed from tracks that Nanya's family was steadily increasing. White settlers, previously indifferent, became anxious for the family's, and their own, welfare.

In 1893 Aboriginal stockmen Harry Mitchell, Dan McGregor and Fred Williams tracked down the family and persuaded them to return to the river. This 'capture' was perhaps encouraged by a false rumour of a £50 government reward, but the rescuers' descendants recall that the family was brought in lest they be shot by settlers. The twelve men, eight women and ten children, all in good physical condition, reached Popiltah station on 11 August. Nanya still had his steel axe, now worn wafer-thin.

The station-owner described the dwellings, tools and food-gathering skills of Nanya's group, noting that they initially refused to eat bread, tea or sugar. Yet a photograph taken at the Adelaide exhibition of 1895 of Nanya with two daughters shows that the graceful women of 1893 had become stout on a flour and sugar diet. The Aborigines Protection Board selected a site at Travellers Lake, near Wentworth, but Nanya's people preferred hunting-camps in the vicinity of Pooncarie.

Nanya's case is of interest to demographers as an example of population growth in arid regions. He died in 1895 and was buried near the Great Anabranch. Many of his children, with no acquired resistance to introduced disease, died soon after their isolation ended. In 1905 his son Billy, educated for a time in Adelaide, was being transferred by the paddle-steamer Gem to Point McLeay mission, on Lake Alexandrina. Tormented to desperation by crew-members, Billy jumped into the steamer's engine and was cut to pieces.

Select Bibliography

  • B. Hardy, West of the Darling (Brisb, 1969)
  • N. B. Tindale, Aboriginal Tribes of Australia (Berkeley, California, 1974)
  • B. Hardy, Lament for the Barkindji (Adel, 1976)
  • Report of the Aborigines Protection Board (New South Wales), 1893
  • Report of the Fifth Meeting of A.A.A.S. (Adel), 1894, p 524
  • Science of Man, 6, no 8, Sept 1903, p 119
  • Australian Museum Magazine, 10, no 6, 15 June 1951, p 172
  • Barrier Miner, Christmas 1898, supplement
  • N. (Warrakoo) Smith typescript (no date, privately held)
  • private information.

Citation details

Robert Lindsay, 'Nanya (1835–1895)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 23 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (Melbourne University Press), 1986

View the front pages for Volume 10

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


New South Wales, Australia


1895 (aged ~ 60)
New South Wales, Australia

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.